Jessica Harrington is keeping her fingers crossed Our Duke can get his season back on track in the Unibet Irish Gold Cup at Leopardstown on Sunday.
The eight-year-old saw off Coney Island and Disko to claim a Grade One prize over this course and distance last season and looked every inch a top-class stayer in the making when rounding off his campaign with a brilliant display in the Irish Grand National.
However, he trailed home last of seven finishers on his seasonal reappearance in the JNwine.com Champion Chase at Down Royal in November and having since undergone a back operation, he returns to the Dublin track this weekend on a recovery mission.
Harrington said: ” We had to do a bit of an operation on him after Down Royal and he seems to have recovered from that.
“He does run well fresh. If I have him back in the same form as he was for the Irish National last year, I think he’ll run a big race.
“We’re touching all wood. He seems to be good and we’ve done everything.
“It’s up to him now. I’m getting him there and he seems to be fresh and well in himself.”
Like Harrington, jockey Robbie Power is hoping Our Duke can show his true colours in the feature event on the second day of the inaugural Dublin Racing Festival.
“No one is looking forward to seeing him back more than me. He’s in great form, I schooled him during the week and he felt fantastic,” said Power.
“Realistically it’s his first run of the year as Down Royal was a non-event for him, so he’s going to have to bring his A-game.
“The ground has been so heavy on all the tracks, we haven’t taken him anywhere. He’s done all his work at home.”
Willie Mullins has saddled a record nine previous winners of the Irish Gold Cup, with the hugely-popular Florida Pearl claiming four victories between 1999 and 2004.
This year the champion trainer is represented by Djakadam, who needs to bounce back from a rare disappointing run in the Leopardstown Christmas Chase, as well as Killultagh Vic
The latter made a successful return from a near two-year absence over hurdles at Punchestown on New Year’s Eve, but faces a huge rise in class this weekend.
Mullins said: “I was very disappointed with Djakadam at Christmas. It was probably the worst run of his career.
“Nothing has shown up and maybe it was just too soon after the John Durkan (finished second to Sizing John) at Punchestown.
“I was disappointed with him at Punchestown and maybe I was too hard on him too quick after that. I thought I should have been doing more with him and maybe I did too much with him going to Leopardstown. That’s the only explanation I can come up with.
” I’m very pleased with how Killultagh Vic has come out of his run over hurdles. He doesn’t like jumping hurdles or have any respect for them, and when he gets back over fences I think he’ll be better.”
Gordon Elliott saddles Mala Beach and Outlander in a bid to win his first Irish Gold Cup.
“Mala Beach has definitely got an each-way chance. He’ll love the soft ground and he jumps brilliant,” said the Cullentra-based trainer.
“He has to improve, but he’s in good form and he’s bombing at home.
“Outlander seems to always run well around Leopardstown. He ran a great race the last day (finished third in Christmas Chase) and we’re looking forward to running him again.”
Outlander is one of three representatives for Gigginstown House Stud along with Henry de Bromhead’s Valseur Lido and the Mouse Morris-trained Alpha Des Obeaux.
De Bromhead said: “V alseur Lido ran in the Leopardstown Christmas Chase and it was his first run back in a year, coming back from injury.
“He finished fifth and ran very well. He got a little bit tired after the last and we’re very happy with him.”
Barry Geraghty has sided with Tony Martin’s Paddy Power Chase winner Anibale Fly over fellow JP McManus-owned runners Minella Rocco and Edwulf.
Minella Rocco was runner-up in last season’s Cheltenham Gold Cup and finished a respectable fourth in the Christmas Chase on his latest appearance.
“Anibale Fly was impressive last time, but Minella Rocco ran a good race at Christmas as well,” Geraghty told At The Races.
“The ground could just be a little soft for Minella, that’s the one thing against him.”